How to Pack in Just a Carry-On Bag, No Matter Your Trip’s Length

Woman sitting with a small carry-on roller luggage and a backpack

If you haven’t picked up on it, hi, I’m Amanda and I’m a pretty avid traveler. Be it abroad or domestic, you can find me on planes quite often (I’m likely the one asleep in the window seat). Also one of my crowning achievements in the travel space is that I haven’t checked a bag since 2010. I am very good at figuring out how to pack for a trip in just a carry-on, so I have decided I’d like to share my best tips and recommendations with you.

You might be thinking, “yeah it’s easy to pack in a carry-on for a short weekend trip” and while you may be right there, I’ve also packed and traveled using only a carry-on for two week trips with multiple destinations. I’ve packed and traveled using only a carry-on for week-long hiking adventures with both hiking and photography gear. You probably don’t need another example to get the gist, but here’s a third and final one for you anyway. I successfully packed and traveled using only a carry-on for 10 days in Ireland during spring, requiring coats and footwear aplenty.

So, let’s get to the meat of this. I’m going to break this blog down into two sections; What I use to pack and my tips for packing it all into a carry-on for your vacation or trip.

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What Do I Use to Pack in a Carry-On?

Heads up, I might make a little money if you buy some of these items as a couple of these are affiliate links. However, I’d never recommend to you anything I didn’t personally love or didn’t have crazy good reviews.

  • Roller luggage or a duffel that fits the dimensions of carry-on luggage
    • I personally use the Away Bigger Carry-On and it has been excellent for me. I originally bought the regular Away Carry-On and I found it to be just a tad too small. The larger model has worked perfectly for me.
    • I am sure however there are other models of suitcases with similar dimensions made of similar materials that could work. I will however say their customer service is superb and the 90 day trial was great for me; I upgraded at no cost to me!
  • A backpack
    • I originally bought this Peak Design bag to use specifically for my photography equipment but this holds SO MUCH stuff.
  • Packing cubes
    • The day I started using packing cubes is the day I became a new woman. Is that dramatic? Probably. But packing cubes make it SO much easier to pack for a trip in just a carry-on bag. I tend to use the Away ones which are more expensive for honestly no real good reason, but these ones are much cheaper and work just as well.
  • Carabiners
    • Carabiners are just the most useful thing in the world that you can get super cheaply (like these bad boys). I clip stuff to my backpack to make even more room inside it.
  • Medicine or makeup bag(s)
    • For your toiletries and honestly whatever small items you can fit in there
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My Top Tips for How to Pack in a Carry-On

The Short Version

Don’t have a million years to read 1000 words on the best way to pack a suitcase or how to pack a carry-on? No worries, here’s the diet version:

  • Don’t waste your personal item on a purse or small bag; use a full-sized backpack
  • Wear your bulkiest items on the plane even if it makes you look like a doofus
  • All clothes/accessories should match one another
  • Roll clothes and stuff into packing cubes
  • Clip smaller items to the outside of your backpack
  • Skip hair products and pack one styling tool
  • Pack minimal and multi-purpose makeup
  • Pack travel-sized items
  • Fill a small purse/belt bag with smaller items so you can have stylish bag if needed
  • Book lodging with laundry, if possible
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The Long Version

So you’ve got time today? Awesome – thanks for trusting me with your time and packing efforts. Let’s dig a little bit deeper into each of my tips so you can learn how to pack a carry-on for a week or more!

Don’t Waste Your Personal Item

I see too many people who just use a purse or a fanny pack as their personal item and I always think, “UGH you could be being so much more efficient with your packing!”

Use a big backpack as your personal item and the biggest roller carry-on or duffel you can use that will fit for your most popular/used airline(s). Your personal item simply needs to fit under the seat in front of you, so you can pack that baby pretty full.

I have never had any issues traveling using my Away Bigger Carry-On roller bag and Peak Design backpack combo and I’ve probably flown with them 20+ times at this point.

Wear Your Heaviest/Most Awkward Items on the Plane

Need to pack big hiking boots and a parka for a hiking trip? Wear that shit on the plane! Do you maybe look overdressed or weird running around an airport in boots and a heavy jacket in the middle of July? Sure, but it frees up so much room in your carry-on bags that it’s beyond worth it! This is honestly one of the best tips for how to pack in a carry-on, because you’re able to simply wear your clunkiest items instead of trying to play Tetris with them in your bags.

Also this doesn’t just work for bulky items, but also ones that are hard to pack. Bringing a big beach hat? Wear that too!

Basically wear as much as you can on the flight itself. Who cares if you look like a maniac, when are you ever going to see these people again? They don’t know what you know, which is how to skip baggage claim by knowing how to pack a carry-on suitcase efficiently, and for a week or more!

All Clothes/Accessories Should Match One Another

All outfits should be able to rock the same one or two pairs of shoes. No more than one pair of dressy shoes and one pair of casual shoes should be packed. I basically try and pack no more than three pairs of shoes total; boots (usually hiking, worn on the plane), tennis shoes, and a more dressy pair. The only time I can ever get away with more than that is if I’m going on a beach trip, because sandals are easy to pack.

Additionally, plan out your outfits so you can mix and match them. Any single item should be able to be worn with any other clothing item or accessory you pack. This is crucial when it comes to learning how to pack in a carry-on for your trip. Any shirt should match any skirt or pants or jacket, and vice versa.

I promise you can still pack killer outfits using this technique, you just need to plan a little bit ahead. Just because you follow these tips on how to pack a carry-on bag doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice style!

Roll Clothes & Stuff Into Packing Cubes

If I had to pick a top tip from this list that will teach you how to pack using only a carry-on for your future trips, it’s this one.

PACKING CUBES ARE LIFE CHANGING. I mean that; I vividly remember my first time packing using them and how easy it was to pack in a carry-on for a week-long trip.

I like to organize my packing cubes by the type of clothing that is in each. Typically I have a big one for my dress clothes, medium one for activewear, and small one(s) for undergarments. I can squish so much more stuff into packing cubes than I can without them. Again, these ones from Amazon are inexpensive and get the job done.

Clip Stuff to Your Personal Item

Carabiners are sort of a life saver. I have an extra jacket in a bag and a plane pillow that are hooked to the front of my backpack, and I could surely attach more if I wanted to. Keep a few of these hanging around so you can hang smaller items from your backpack. Some items I have clipped to my backpack in. thepast are:

Skip Hair Products & Pack One Styling Tool (If You Need One)

I rarely ever pack shampoo/conditioner as I will simply pick some up where I go. I am privileged though for having a hair type that has products widely available to it, so this won’t work for everyone. But it saves a ton of space in your bag(s) if you can make it work. If you can’t make it work, pack travel sized items.

Additionally, I tend to only pack one styling tool, which is almost always a straightener. I learned to do a couple of different hair styles with it – beach waves, curls, and straight – so this has become the most useful for me, eliminating the need to pack others. I’d recommend learning a couple different ways to style your hair with a single tool in order to make more room in your carry-on!

But also if you’re going on a hiking or action-packed trip, ask yourself if you really need that hair styling tool at all. I honestly rarely do, but I bring the straightener because it’s relatively small and takes up little space.

Pack Minimal & Multi-Purpose Makeup

In sort of the same vein as the hair tips, pack minimal makeup. And for what you do bring, try to pack multi-purpose. Got a cheek and lip tint combo instead of a separate blush and three lipsticks? That’s perfection.

Pack Travel-Sized Items

I know I just spent a couple paragraphs telling you to lean out your hair/makeup items but I that doesn’t mean you can’t bring any! The makeup, hair, and/or skincare items you do pack should be travel-sized. I typically get these from Sephora, because with every purchase made there, you get a couple of travel-sized items as well. I always take those on vacation, even if they aren’t what I typically use in my daily routine at home. Again, I’m fortunate and my skin can handle that, but this is a major win that is one of my favorite carry-on packing tips.

But if you have your favorite items you want to bring, get some travel-sized toiletry containers and fill those.

Pack & Fill a Small Purse or Belt Bag With Smaller Items

I fill a small, flexible purse with whatever fits and put it in the backpack. That way you get to pack your stuff as well have stylish bag to wear on your trip. I’ll typically pack it with electronic cords, but have packed it with toiletries or socks and underwear before as well too. I love to do this, and it’s one of my favorite carry-on packing tips.

Book Lodging With Laundry

If you can book lodging that has a washer and dryer, this is a gold mine. This will allow you to pack half the amount of clothes for your trip since you can simply wash them. This is less of a “how to pack a carry-on” tip and more “how to make the most of your carry-on” tip, but I always do this for trips that are a week or longer.

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And there you have it! My best tips for how to pack a carry-on for any length trip. If you have any questions, always feel free to reach out and in the meantime follow me on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Pinterest for more of my travel tips!

Hiking woman wearing backpack on Inspiration Point, Grand TEton

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